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Gay Marriage Hearings On Capitol Hill: Democracy At Its Best

Jul 21, 2011

Democracy shined bright on Capitol Hill yesterday.

CapitolHillSunset Gay Marriage Hearings On Capitol Hill: Democracy At Its Best

A new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that 80 percent of Americans are “dissatisfied or even angry” with Congress, the highest percentage in nineteen years. And people’s rage is totally understandable: as the seemingly ceaseless debt debates show, Washington remains more partisan and gridlocked than ever.

But Capitol Hill isn’t all bad: the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday held hearings about repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that prohibits federal recognition of gay marriage. This is democracy at its best.

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy announced earlier this month that he would hold a special hearing on Senators Dianne Feinstein and Jerry Nadler’s Respect for Marriage Act, legislation that repeals DOMA and extends federal benefits to same-sex couples in states where they can marry.

Marriage equality activists were thrilled at the news; so, one assumes, was President Obama, who said this week that he’s “proud to support the Respect for Marriage Act” that “uphold[s] the principle that the federal government should not deny gay and lesbian couples the same rights and legal protections as straight couples.”

Well, the Senate held its meeting yesterday, and it was action packed.

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, also a Democrat, forced Tom Minnery, an anti-gay crusader representing Focus on the Family, to admit that his organization misrepresented a Health Department report to make it appear that straight parents produce more well-adjusted children than gay couples.

“I checked the study out. It actually doesn’t say what you said it says,” said Franken, according to the LA Times. “Isn’t it true, Mr. Minnery, that a married same-sex couple that has had or adopted kids would fall under the definition of ‘a nuclear family’ in the study that you cite?”

Minnery replied, “I would think that the study when it cites nuclear family would mean by a family headed by husband and wife,” thereby allowing Franken to tear him down completely: “It doesn’t. I frankly don’t really know how we can trust the rest of your testimony if you are reading studies these ways.”

Elsewhere in the hearing, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, a cosponsor of the original 2009 RMA, blasted DOMA, saying, “I am tired of it being the law of this land that it’s ok for the government to discriminate against Americans solely based on their gender identity or sexual orientation,” and married same-sex couples spoke out, often emotionally, about the official discrimination they encounter everyday.

While the session did include some of the traditional right-wing blustering — Iowa Republican Steve King used the Senate event to reiterate the ubiquitous “gay marriage is like incest” attack: “[Equality arguments] are the same arguments that could be used to promote marriage between fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, or even polygamist relationships.” — and the RMA’s odds of being passed this session are nil, the Judiciary Committee’s session brought years of discrimination straight to Congress, and no doubt changed the debate forever.

They were indeed a far cry from Capitol Hill’s other happenings.

Forget the debt debates and back room dealings over the Libyan war, it’s public sessions like this that truly represent the beauty of our democratic society; that the American people, regardless of social power or influence, can participate in and help shape our nation’s government.

But such congressional receptions run the gamut in substance and potency. Some revolve around tragedy, like 9/11 sessions, while others are called specifically to shore up xenophobia, as done during the House Un-American Activities Committee’s various witch hunts and Republican Rep. Peter King’s ongoing crusade against “Muslim extremism.”

And still other Congressional hearings are turned into a political circus, as evidenced by Stephen Colbert’s appearances to discuss migrant farmers and campaign financing. Colbert’s efforts were effective — he sparked civic conversation and won the right to form a Super PAC — but still a circus nonetheless.

The RMA hearings, however, were something rare. They were held not to recover the nation’s spirit or raise outrage, or organized as a sideshow. They were held to show how government-sanctioned homophobia has impacted a significant part of the population.

Like the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal hearings from last year, the RMA conference put LGBT rights center stage in Capitol Hill for all the world to see.

Yesterday’s hearing held our government accountable for its wrongs, and put a human face on an issue too often obscured by ideologically tainted messaging, such as King’s “incest” claim.

They utilized our nation’s civil society to address a national failing, and to move us toward a more perfect union, which, if you ask me, is the perfect use for Capitol Hill, a place where, believe it or not, our democracy can still thrive.

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